TALK: "Toward A Sociology of Genres: American Popular Music in the Twentieth Century,” William Roy (Sociology, UCLA)

Event Date: 

Friday, February 28, 2014 -
3:30pm to 5:00pm

Event Location: 

  • SSMS 3017

William Roy (Sociology, UCLA)

In the past decade or so considerable sociological attention has focused on the development and use of cultural categories, addressing an issue posed by Durkheim:  how the taken-for-granted schema by which people organize reality comes into being and is made consequential.  From medical diagnostic categories to the delineation of industries, there are common sociological processes and mechanisms.  This talk articulates a relational and institutional approach to social categories.  It is relational in the sense that categories arise and are applied between people, not just inside individual minds.  Bowker and Star (1999) in particular argue that categories such as medical diagnoses are most salient across divisions of labor.  It is institutional in that categories arise from the operation and inter-relationship of institutions; they become inscribed the organization and operation of institutions.  This framework is applied to the rise of genres in American popular music in the twentieth century.   In the early twentieth century, American popular music was categorized primarily in terms of its institutional setting--theater, amateur bands or choirs, or individual consumption.  Early record catalogs inherited categories from the publishing industry--trumpet duets, piccolo solos, and arias.  By 1920s you see categories based on race or ethnicity--race records, hillbilly music, Polish music, etc. and categories with heavy racial or ethnic overtones--most notably ragtime and jazz.  By the late 20s and 30s, you see a stronger reliance on musical distinctions--swing, bebop, tango, etc.  You also see the crystallization of a distinct Main Stream that other genres define themselves in relationship to.  While genres continued to have strong racial and ethnic (and in some cases gender) connotations, the discourse around categorization is increasing based on the sonic qualities of the music.  By mid-century American popular music was defined primarily within a genre system. My goal is how to explain this transformation, focusing on a variety of factors--technological (phonographs), legal (copyright law), economic (concentration in the industry), demographic (restricted immigration), and institutional (the rise of radio and cinema).  Overlying and permeating the institutional factors are the incisive dynamics of race, ethnicity, gender, and culture.  Although I do not seriously engage the issue, this framework could presumably explain the decline of the genre system in the twenty-first century.